Late-Night Succession

I was reading Bill Carter’s latest missive on the late night landscape, which is as you’d expect: hosts fighting over a piece of a shrinking pie, Leno still beating Letterman, both looking diminished. It also talks about the importance of social media, which I sometimes suspect may be overstated. It’s not that social media – in whatever form it happens to take, since it won’t be based around Twitter forever – can’t be incorporated into comedy. It definitely can be, especially on a show like The Colbert Report that blurs the line between fiction and real life. I’m just not certain that this is what’s needed to attract viewers. Carter mentions that Leno and Letterman “don’t do much of anything involving social media,” but neither does Jon Stewart. If interactivity works for comedic purposes, go ahead, but nothing is more off-putting than a comedian straining to incorporate those elements without enjoying them.

One thing that caught my eye was the bit about whether Letterman will step down due to his declining ratings; Carter’s sources lean toward saying that he will stay on for at least a couple more years, and the network won’t try forcing him out. The question then is what this means for Craig Ferguson:

Yet if Mr. Letterman does decide to extend his time on the show, it will certainly affect Mr. Ferguson, who has a clause in his contract guaranteeing him the 11:35 slot when Mr. Letterman leaves. One possible outcome that some CBS executives have cited — though they say they don’t fully believe it — is that Mr. Ferguson might quit his 12:30 show if Mr. Letterman remains.

That sounds delicious; it would be like the Leno/Conan thing playing out on a smaller scale. Smaller because this is a less-watched show and a TV franchise with less history behind it. (Though if you think of Late Show as part of a franchise Letterman created on NBC with Late Night, then it does have quite a lot of history. And isn’t it fair to say that the host, rather than the network, really defines the franchise? That’s what Letterman was trying to prove by moving from NBC to CBS, and that’s what Conan O’Brien has tried to prove by doing a show that is very similar to his NBC show.) I saw a Ferguson episode lately where he seemed really off his game to me, but even when he’s off his game, he can be very interesting to watch. Like Letterman, his prickly personality defines the entire show, and he doesn’t really care whether you like him or not – unlike Jimmy Fallon, who very much wants us to like him and has succeeded in crafting a show built around charm and lightness.

If Ferguson is the designated successor to Letterman, then Fallon is clearly being groomed as the successor for The Tonight Show: during the Leno/Conan fracas he kept his head down, didn’t make enemies, and concentrated on trying to improve his show, which he did. Depending on how long he and Ferguson are willing to wait for the old guys to leave, they could conceivably wind up stepping into the big jobs around the same time. Maybe that won’t happen, or maybe the networks will find someone else to put in there (maybe even a woman, if such a thing is even allowed in broadcast TV late night). But Fallon vs. Ferguson would be almost a hipper version of the Leno vs. Letterman battles. Fallon would probably beat Ferguson, as he currently beats him at 12:30, and that possibility might lead CBS to find someone younger, contract or no contract. On the other hand, he doesn’t beat Ferguson by that much, and the difference could be chalked up to the difference in lead-ins. Anyway, Fallon and Ferguson are both doing good shows on different philosophies – Ferguson, the shoot-from-the-hip broadcaster, Fallon, the guy who enjoys being silly and celebrating popular culture.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.